Thursday 3 March 2022

The Question in Bodies #38: Parasite Art (ii)


Starry Eyes (2014)

Warning for #metoo stuff (you know what I am talking about). And many spoilers. 

If it seems sacreligious not only to segue directly from the arguable masterpiece of one of the greatest (and reportedly nicest) American directors to a low budget indie horror but also to write quite a bit more about that low-budget indie horror, well, there are loads of words about the masterpiece movie, and better ones than mine. This one? Not so many.

Mulholland Drive’s most interesting (for me) contributions to identity horror as an idea are predicated on how dreams of fame sour a person, destroy them. Betty in Lynch’s film is perfect starry-eyed ingenue, until she isn’t, and she is in fact interchangeable with the lost, bitter, missed-her-shot Diane. Betty is a dream of a dreamer; Diane is one for whom those dreams have soured into a nightmare of regret.

Several films deal with this as a framing narrative for classic horror tropes. Here, dreams of fame are turned into something parasitic, something that feasts on still-walking corpses that don’t know they’re corpses. Characters who survive do so because they harden themselves, are prepared to do terrible things. It’s difficult to make cynicism of this kind stick on the landing, because the turning of your protagonist – or her destruction, or both – risks annihilating the sympathy of your audience. For example, Nicholas Winding Refn’s glossy, exploitative, shallow and basically nasty 2016 movie The Neon Demon doesn’t work because of the psychopathy of the whole enterprise, the inability of the film to find anything in its characters to sympathise with, so everyone is either a moral insect or a manipulable mark.

Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2014 feature debut Starry Eyes delves even further into the bucket of horror tropes than The Neon Demon, its old school pulp sensitivity admitting a pure sort of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, but attaching that to a clear view of human frailties that belies its title.

Sarah Walker (Alex Essoe) is an actor who aspires to getting into movies. She tries out for a part in a movie called The Silver Scream, a low budget horror from Astraeus Films, a well-known if not well-respected horror stable. Her first audition goes badly, the casting director and her assistant (Maria Olsen and Marc Senter) being basically just cruel to the acting hopefuls. Sarah goes straight to the bathroom and has an epic flip-out. She has trichotillomania (the self harm disorder characterised by pulling your hair out) and engages in this in the bathroom. But she is heard by the casting director, who pulls Sarah back into the audition room and instructs Sarah to have the flip-out again in front of them. And so desperate is Sarah to get the part – any part – she does it. And over the course of the movie, Sarah does increasingly extreme, humiliating and sinister things for the sake of getting the part, and put like that, you would expect that it is a story about an innocent corrupted. But it doesn’t quite work out like that.

Sarah works in a tacky baked potato restaurant, where the waiting staff are all pretty young women in tight t-shirts, who are paid to jiggle up and down on demand for customers. Her boss, Carl (Pat Healy) is framed initially as, well, a bit creepy, with the Creepy Manager Moustache and the gaze that falls a little too readily on Sarah’s backside. Sarah’s friends spend a lot of time talking about making movies and not actually making them. Danny (Noah Segan) is clearly working on a script that’s never going to be made. And Erin (Fabianne Therese) constantly undermines Sarah with the sort of low-key catty comment that would suggest that her main pleasure in life is seeing Sarah fail.

And it's important that you are set up to see Sarah’s narrative, the version of the story she is already telling herself, the version where she transcends shitty fake friends, wannabes, humiliating work situations and sleazy film execs to find stardom.

There are many wonderful things about Alex Essoe’s performance in this film. One is that she manages to hold all this in tension with the story that the other characters see, which is not the same. At no point is any point of view other than Sarah's ever really shown in the film. Even in the very few scenes where she is not present, she is very close. She is outside the door, in the next room, just in earshot.

But her narrative is clearly not all there is, and this is where Starry Eyes really shines: as the film goes on, we see just how skewed Sarah’s view of reality is, right from the beginning. Sarah’s friends are for the most part actually friends. Sarah’s roommate Tracey (Amanda Fuller) not only cares for her, but might even be a little in love with her, and, it turns out, has covered Sarah’s rent more than once. Erin and Danny occasionally sleep together, but it isn’t so Erin can be in Danny’s film, because they all secretly know that isn’t going to happen. It’s because they really, genuinely like each other. At the end of the film, when Erin sees the state Sarah has gotten into, her expression is not one of disgust, it is pity. Carl runs an eatery that’s "Hooters with baked potatoes” so you can hardly call him an enlightened guy, but he also at no point actually says or does anything inappropriate, seems to have a genuine concern for the welfare of his staff and gives Sarah her job back after she walks out without expecting anything more than she just do the job.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s epic flip out at the audition? That’s not right. We hear that Sarah has no family, no real connections – we don’t know what that means, or how she ended up so alone, but there is something in her background that suggests some past issue in her emotional development, some way in which she has been abused, or deprived of love, and given reason for her appalling self-image.

She is obsequious and too eager to please people she perceives as higher than her on the ladder. She is curt and brutally direct with people she sees as equal to her or beneath her (so for example she sees Carl as very much beneath her). When one of her friends, Ashley (Natalie Castillo), falls over and breaks her nose, Sarah only laughs, even as Tracey rushes down to the poolside to help.

Even her initial attitude to the part she gets is complex. And we need to talk about this part she’s trying out for, and what it means.

No one is under any illusions that The Silver Scream is going to be a good movie. The one bit of dialogue we hear at the audition is pretty dire (and gives Alex Essoe the chance to knock it out of the park in the insanely tricky role of an actor who isn’t quite as talented as she is). Sarah doesn’t really understand the part. She doesn’t even really care about the movie, brightly bullshitting about having loved it to the leathery, creepy Producer (Louis Dezseran), a film guy of the old school, in all the possible ways, including the worst ones.

The conversation with the Producer is pivotal, because of course it is. It has to be. He describes The Silver Scream as his “love letter to this town”, and Sarah is confused how it can be this and also a horror movie, which I think betrays the fact that she doesn’t really know or care how horror movies work. She just wants the part.

There’s a weird sort of nested dolls feeling in this, because it becomes apparent that The Silver Scream is really a version of the film we are watching. It is a film about Hollywood, a love letter in horror. It casts an unknown in her first starring role; she will be on the posters, the Producer says. Alex Essoe, now fairly prolific, had her first lead role in Starry Eyes; she is on all of the publicity for the movie, front and centre. The Silver Scream is described by the Producer in the purple manner of a movie producer of decades gone by thus:

Producer: Ambition! The blackest of human desires. Everyone has it. But how many act on it? That’s what intrigues me. That’s what lights me up, as they say! [he chuckles] There’s something primal there! And that’s why you’re sitting right here in this room.

Sarah: But I – I mean, it’s a horror movie, as well –

Producer: Of course! The two are not mutually exclusive. This industry is a plague, Sarah! A plague of unoriginality. Hollow be thy name. Shallow be thy name. Yes, it’s a plague all right. And what does every plague have a lot of?

Sarah: Rats?

Producer: Precisely! Yes, thousands of them! Hungry little rats, hungry for the cheese. You cut through the fog of this town and you get desperation. Plastic parishioners worshipping their deity of debauchery. But that’s what I find interesting, Sarah! That’s what I want to capture in this film! The ugliness of the human spirit.

And of course, he’s also describing Starry Eyes, a film about hunger, and parasitic ambition, and the ugliness of the human spirit. And the ugliness comes front and centre when the Producer puts his hand up Sarah’s skirt, because of course he does, and Sarah runs out, because of course she does –

OK. If this film had been made about three years later, maybe it might have been presented differently. When Tracey works out what just happened, she cries out “Do people still even do that!?”

Well, anyone with a cursory inside knowledge of the larger independent film studios might have a story for you, Tracey.

But the kicker is this: Sarah’s tears aren’t flowing because she was propositioned. To Tracey’s horror, Sarah is upset because she could have got the part, and she is kicking herself because she didn’t go through with it. She denies it, of course. But it’s true. And in some ways that’s more understandable than you might think

This means she goes back. And the heavily implied blowjob she gives the producer is framed as the final selling of her soul and her body and her autonomy, and any moral compass she ever had, in an overwrought occult ritual. And maybe this film isn’t as clueless about what was going on in Hollywood after all.

But in Hollywood, Faustian pacts don’t work in the traditional way. Back in the old days, you sold your soul, and you got the good stuff up front and the hideous consequences after the fact. But Sarah’s body collapses. She begins to rot from the inside out. Her fingernails fall out. Her hair, pulled so many times, falls out in bloody clumps. She vomits maggots. And she must sacrifice everything she has before getting the good stuff, and metamorphosing via an authentically Lovecraft-style occult ritual into something glossy, and perfect, and poised, and beautiful, and carnivorous and alien. 

Throughout the film, the Casting Director and then the Producer assert that all they want is for Sarah to be her “true self”. Because they were never looking for someone to corrupt. They were looking for someone who was already willing to dispose of anyone in the world. At different points in the film, Sarah avers that she has no family and she has no friends. And without those true human relationship, it allows her to belong with the cynics, the sociopaths, the vampires, the parasites, the glossy, beautiful, taloned things who parasitise our art.

Starry Eyes is a film that critiques itself; it’s an exploitation picture that approaches the ugliness of the human spirit by looking at the sort of people who think it’s a good time to make an exploitation picture about the ugliness of the human spirit. Its Hollywood is made of predators, but they are predators who are broken in a very specific way: they cannot see that theirs is not the only story, they cannot see that there is a whole world of love and integrity around them if only they’d look.